This story is by Emily Courte and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Hazel scowled as the mover walked right through her, boots muddying the hideous floral carpet stairs she lounged on. Just more people to ruin her peace and quiet when she’d just gotten used to having the place to herself again.
Sixty years she’d been here since she died. Sixty years stuck in the home she’d adamantly refused to leave. And fifteen families had passed through since. All the same. All whining and self-centred. All groaning about how their life was hard. Yet they continued to make the same stupid mistakes that she’d long since stopped screaming her words of warning about. They only fell on deaf ears.
But could she leave? Nooooo. That would be too easy. That inconvenient tether kept her here, stuck listening to them while they floundered. It wasn’t until all the movers had left that Hazel saw her.
“Ruby. Do Mum a favour and play by yourself while I start unpacking okay?”
Ruby. The name brought back memories Hazel had long thought gone. Of her own Ruby dragging her little sister out and forcing her to talk to people when she’d much rather hide in her room.
“Ok Mum. But do I have play by myself? Can I play with her?”
The small child’s words hauled Hazel from her memories only to find Ruby’s little eyes looking directly at her. But Ruby’s mother was stressed enough that she didn’t register her daughter’s words.
“If you want Ruby. Just let me start unpacking.”
Hazel was rooted to the spot as Ruby skipped over. “Hi!” The girl beamed. “I’m Ruby. Why are you see through? Is it why everyone was walking through you before? Does that feel funny?”
But words had departed Hazel and she couldn’t answer Ruby’s barrage of questions. “How old are you child?” It wasn’t uncommon for babies to see her she’d discovered. But they grew out of it quickly. How in the afterlife could this child see her?
Ruby held up her fingers proudly, “I turned five a little while ago.”
Much too old.
Hazel was still puzzling this out when a grunt sounded from the kitchen. Ruby’s mother was trying to lift a box that was much too large.
“Where is your father?” Hazel asked without thinking. “He should be helping her.”
A shadow passed over Ruby’s face. “Dad said he’d had enough. So, he left. Mum cried. We moved.”
Curse Hazel’s stupid mouth. She was trying to figure out what to say next (she hadn’t even had a conversation that wasn’t to herself in sixty years, much less to a child!) when Ruby beamed again.
“Do you want to have tea with me?”
Before she knew it Hazel was seated at a flimsy plastic table only thirty centimetres from the ground and drinking distinctly air flavoured tea from a teacup no bigger than Ruby’s hand. Her Ruby had offered her tea when she was trying to be strong too. Except past the age of twelve the tea had been significantly more substantial and at a table that actually fit chairs.
“Cake?” Ruby offered a plastic delicacy and Hazel thought it would be rude to not accept. They sat in silence a moment before Ruby couldn’t help herself. “Mum and the moving men couldn’t see you, could they?”
“No. I’m a ghost.”
“I died. I don’t know.”
“So how can you pick up the cup if you’re a ghost?”
“Little things are no problem. But I can’t leave this house.”
“I died here. I don’t know.”
“So how long have you been here?”
“Nearly as long as I was alive.”
“How long was that?”
Hazel thought a moment. She remembered celebrating her 60th with her children. But then her body had started failing her. “I think I was around sixty-four?”
Little Ruby’s mouth fell open. “You’ve been here that long? All alone?”
“There were other people here a lot of the time. But no one could see me. No one could hear me. Until you.”
“I don’t know. I’m dead.”
Ruby giggled. “You don’t know a lot.”
Hazel smiled, “Like I said. I’m—”
They laughed. Then the smile slid from Ruby’s face. “Not having to talk to people sounds great. I wish I didn’t have to talk to people.”
“That’s an odd wish.”
“Talking to people scares me. I’m scared of saying the wrong thing. Dad used to talk to people for me so I could hide. But now he’s gone, and I’m scared again. I wish he hadn’t gone.”
Hazel raised her eyebrows. While caring, letting a child rely on a parent to that extent wasn’t the wisest course of action. Especially if you were just going to up and leave as it appeared he had done. It seemed Hazel was quite happy that this idiotic father hadn’t come, she likely wouldn’t have been able to resist some of her mischief if he had. “What a silly thing to do.”
“Huh?” Ruby looked up, wide eyed.
“You have a voice, do you not child?” Hazel scolded. “Why should you let someone else speak for you?”
“But it’s har—”
“You spoke to me, didn’t you?”
Ruby’s mouth snapped shut. “That was different. You looked lonely, like me.”
Hazel’s next admonishing words were stalled. She’d looked lonely? Was she lonely? She’d been here for so long she’d gotten used to it. Used to the echoing space between her and the living. Used the cloak of solitude she wore, to trick herself into believing that it was better that way. She’d done the same in life and it appeared she was doing it in death too. It had only been her Ruby that got her out of the house and into the world. And Hazel had lived a good life as a result. But the little Ruby in front of her…. She didn’t have an inconvenient tether that stopped her from leaving. She had shackles of fear it seemed.
Hazel put her tea down and smiled. “Well, I’m not lonely now, thanks to you. But I’ve already lived my life Ruby, yours has just started. And let me give you a hint, to make the most out of it… you have to meet the people in it. Which means talking to them. And when you talk to them, it doesn’t seem so scary anymore because you know what?”
“Everyone else is usually a little scared too.” Ruby chewed her lip in thought.
“Ruby!” The call from downstairs startled them both and if Hazel’s knee had been substantial the little table probably would’ve hit the roof. “I’ve finished enough of the unpacking for now. How about we go to the park?”
Ruby hesitated, glancing at Hazel who smiled, “Lots of people to talk with there.”
“What if they don’t like me, Hazel?”
Hazel scoffed, “Well, I like you Ruby. And all we did was talk.”
Ruby pursed her lips and grabbed her shoes, going down to meet her mother. Out of mere curiosity Hazel followed. The grandma took her seat on the stairs, ready to watch little Ruby venture into the world. But the girl paused at the door.
“What’s wrong Ruby?” Her mother asked. “I know it’s different without Dad, but you can’t stay in here all the time.”
Ruby smiled up at her mother, “I know Mum. Hazel told me.”
Ruby’s mother frowned.
“Hazel’s a sixty-four-year-old ghost and she’s my new friend. She said everyone’s scared sometimes but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t talk to people.”
Ruby’s mother’s eyes widened, and Hazel had to stop herself from gasping as her gut lurched. The odd feeling faded quickly, leaving her shaken and grasping onto the banister. Her tether…something had changed. But before she could think about it too much her eyes locked with Ruby’s where she stood with her hand outstretched.
“Are you coming Hazel?”
Hazel was sixty-four years old and sixty years dead. She’d started the day expecting he same thing. The same people who didn’t realise what they had right in front of them. But maybe this family wasn’t the same as the others. They were struggling. Yet they weren’t complaining. They were fighting, moving on. Not letting the world beat them. And through it, the impossible had happened. After all this time the world that had seemed bland and monotonous brightened a moment when Hazel looked at Ruby’s anxious yet hopeful face.
And when she took Ruby’s hand, she realised why her tether felt different. Because it no longer anchored her to this house. It anchored her to Ruby.
“If you don’t mind having a friend that no one else can see.”
Ruby giggled, “That’s what makes it the best. You can help me not be scared.”
Ruby was suddenly enveloped in her mother’s arms.
“Mum? What’s wrong?”
Ruby’s mother just clutched her tightly. “Oh, nothing Ruby” she said softly. “An odd choice for an imaginary friend but if Hazel the sixty-year-old ghost grandma helps you through this, then so be it.”